September 7, 2015

Check out my recent interview with the Federalist Society about free speech, and my book, Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech, moderated by free speech attorney Steve Klein.


Latest Book

I’m excited to see my book, Liberty’s First Crisis, published March 3 by Atlantic Monthly Press! Some four years have passed since I first started working on it. It’s very gratifying to see the final product.

This week I’ll be appearing on Tuesday, March 3 on MSNBC’s “The Cycle” (airs 3:00 pm). On Sunday, March 8 at 2:00 pm, I’ll be at The Fairfield Public Library in Fairfield, Connecticut for my official book launch. There will be an author talk followed by a reception. It should be a great event—lots of friends new and old.

And on Tuesday, March 24, I’ll be at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

In the coming weeks I’ll update this space with news of upcoming appearances, and will post some thoughts on the current state of free speech in the United States and globally.

Updated Note

Atlantic Monthly Press will publish my new book, Liberty’s First Crisis, in March, 2015. Though picking your favorite book is sort of like picking your favorite child (you love them all) this one has special meaning to me. For one thing, it’s been the longest in gestation, nearly four years from when I began researching my proposal until publication. Beyond that, Liberty’s First Crisis deals directly with a subject I’m passionate about: the First Amendment and free speech.

For as long as I can remember—certainly, long before I published my first piece of writing—I’ve been intensely proud to live in a country where the most powerful leader has no authority to tell the least powerful citizen what he can or can’t say. So I’d always been curious about that brief moment in history—1798—when the United States government decided to make criticizing elected leaders a crime. What were they so afraid of? Weren’t these the same men who, seven years earlier, had enshrined free speech as the first right in the glorious Bill of Rights? What were they thinking? And, who were the victims of this law?

What I found as I began to research was an extraordinary cast of characters. It was a chance to tell a great story, while at the same time exploring a subject fundamental to our lives.

The victims were a varied and fascinating lot, ranging from a favorite grandson of Benjamin Franklin to a sitting U.S. Congressman, to an average citizen who got drunkone day and made an offhand joke about the president in front of the wrong crowd. And, at the center of the story, there was the embattled president himself, John Adams, feeling threatened by any number of enemies, foreign and domestic. In his younger days, Adams had been among the most forceful and passionate voices on the subject of free speech. But as president he, like nearly every powerful leader before him, rounded up his critics and tried to forcibly silence them.

Americans came to their senses in the nick of time. Alarmed by the sight of fellow citizens being thrown in jail for expressing their opinions, Americans woke from their sleep and realized that precious liberties were at stake. They rejected the Sedition Act and swept the Federalists who had passed it—including President Adams—out of office.

One of the things that most excited me about this book was that the story is so relevant to our own time. The Sedition Act may have been the first great test of free speech in the United States, but it was in no way the last. In one way or another, we’ve been fighting the battle to preserve this most precious liberty ever since. My hope is that in looking closely at the conflicts that took place so long ago, we might find parallels to our own time, and find ways to avoid going down the same path. We tend to frame these debates in political terms—right against left. But in truth the enemy we need to stay on guard against is our own desire to make the world a better place by shutting objectionable voices down.


I recently appeared on the Travel Channel show, Mysteries at the Museum, talking about inventor Charles Goodyear, the subject of my book Noble Obsession. Here’s a video clip, take a look:

Coming Soon

One of the things I like most about books is the sense of permanence they offer in a world that’s constantly changing. Books written years ago may have relevance and come back in ways you don’t expect. That happened recently when I received a call from the Travel Channel’s show, Mysteries at the Museum, asking if I would give an interview for a segment based on the life and discovery of inventor Charles Goodyear. I wrote about Goodyear several years ago in my book, Noble Obsession.

The segment, which airs this Thursday (January 16) at 9:00 pm, traces the remarkable story of Goodyear’s long-suffering quest to solve one of the greatest scientific and industrial puzzles of the 19th century: the vulcanization of rubber. Goodyear’s genius and devotion against extraordinary obstacles helped make the modern world possible. It was a real pleasure to revisit this story with the wonderful people from the Travel Channel.

Over the past few years I’ve been concentrating not on scientific discoveries but the story of American liberty and the birth of free speech in the United States. Free speech has always been a major interest of mine. I am currently finishing a book about the Sedition Act of 1798, which constituted the first great test of whether we, as a nation, intended to live up to the words in our own Bill of Rights guaranteeing free speech and freedom of the press. My book, Trying Freedom, is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2014 by Grove/Atlantic.

Challenges to free speech are not just a matter of history, of course. They arise every day. In the coming weeks and months, I look forward to sharing my thoughts on this and other subjects in this space.